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Vain the Ambition of Kings 1887–1891
Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
John Webster, ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’, originally published in The Devil’s Law Case (1623)
It was early afternoon on Sunday 13 March 1881. A young blonde woman standing on Malaya Sadovaya Street in the heart of St Petersburg in Russia saw the gendarmes on horseback leave the street. That told her all she needed to know: the target would not be returning by this route. Weeks of secretive and dangerous work tunnelling under Malaya Sadovaya Street, culminating in planting a mine the previous night, had been wasted. She gave the signal, raising her handkerchief as though to blow her nose. On cue, four further terrorists armed with home-made bombs hurriedly left to take up their prearranged positions on the alternative course by the Catherine Canal, a white sheet of ice that threaded through St Petersburg towards the Baltic Sea.
These were the final moments of a two-year campaign during which the assassins had hunted their target. He had been sentenced to death in June 1879 at a private meeting in the forests near Lipetsk, about 250 miles south-east of Moscow. The gathering had had a holiday air, as though they were picnickers with their bottles of wine, vodka and food. But they had formed a terrorist group called Narodnaya Volya, the ‘People’s Will’, and reached a unanimous verdict. Only regicide would make the world take notice and tremble. Emperor Alexander II, the mighty autocrat and ‘tsar of all the Russias’, must die.
The sound of the horses was heard first, then the closed carriage of the condemned man was easily recognised, accompanied by his guard of seven Cossacks. The carriage was followed by two sleighs, one of which bore the Chief of Police. It was a short journey from the riding academy at the Mikhailovsky Manege where Alexander II had been reviewing the troops, through the fairy-tale setting of Peter the Great’s magnificent imperial city, its domes and minarets still laden with winter snow. Shortly after 2.15 p.m. the carriage suddenly swung into the view of those waiting for the tsar by the Catherine Canal.1 The moment was almost at hand.
For the bomb throwers there was still time to re-think the actions that would almost certainly cost them their lives. One of them did flee the scene. But nineteen-year-old Nicholas Rysakov did not hesitate. The bomb in his hand was concealed by a white cloth. As the tsar’s carriage was almost upon him he lifted up his arm, eyes fixed on the fast-approaching horses’ hooves, and took aim.
The detonation tore through the cold air and the smothering snow. The horses reeled and fell. There was a shattering crash of breaking glass and wood. Smoke drifted to reveal a Cossack guard, a policeman and two members of the public lying in the snow, bleeding heavily. Security guards seized Rysakov.
The imposing figure of Alexander II emerged from the damaged carriage, apparently unharmed. The bomb had been a split second too late, catching the rear of the carriage. The tsar asked a Cossack for a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his face.2
‘Thank God I’m fine,’ he said, ‘but look…’ A guard had died, a boy was dying.
‘It is too early to thank God,’ cried Rysakov.3
Alexander did not seem to hear those who were urging him back into the carriage. He may have imagined the danger was over, he may have been too shaken, or perhaps this was just his moment of defiance. He paused briefly, crucial seconds of hesitation…
The next bomb landed directly at the tsar’s feet, hurling him into the air with the force of the blast. As he landed he found he was still alive, yet he struggled without success to lift himself from the ground. Around him a pool of blood grew ominously, bright red in the white snow. Close by, twenty others lay injured or dying. The tsar suddenly felt very cold. The guards gathered up his broken body and placed him on a sleigh.
They took him to the Winter Palace, a magnificent Baroque icon of the tsar’s imperial rule. By divine right, Alexander II, like his Romanov forebears, held absolute power over the lives of his subjects and there was no institutional framework to challenge his will. The colossal Winter Palace was like a majestic stage on which to project his wealth and strength: its fabled interiors included a white marbled ballroom, a dining room where feasts were held for 1,000 guests, and galleries that could accommodate 10,000 people. From this opulent proclamation of autocratic Russian power, Alexander II ruled almost one-sixth of the earth’s surface.
None of this could help him now. His family followed the trail of blood across the marbled floors, up the sweeping wide stairway to his study, among them his twelve-year-old grandson, Nicholas. Dressed for an afternoon of ice-skating, the frightened boy stood at the foot of the modest bed where his grandfather lay covered by an old army cloak. The tsar’s face was horribly mutilated, transforming him into something not quite human. One familiar eye stared out unmoving and unseeing with an almost hypnotic effect. Under the blood-soaked cloak, the hollowed-out shape of his grandfather was evident: the right leg appeared to be missing, the left was misshapen, a fast-accumulating pool of blood obscuring the exact nature of the trauma.4 The cloak sagged where his stomach should be. A priest was attending to his immortal soul, murmuring the last rites.
Nicholas witnessed this terrifying spectacle at close hand. This was all that was left of his grandfather, the acclaimed Alexander the Liberator, the man who had pioneered reform in Russia, freed the serfs in 1861, modernised the judiciary, expanded the education system, and was about to take those first, faltering steps towards constitutional reform of the world’s largest autocracy. It seemed ironic that the most liberal tsar in generations, who had been drawing up proposals for a national assembly with wider participation, should suffer such a terrible fate. There had been many attempts on his life by the People’s Will–and now finally, their will had prevailed.
Nothing could quite prepare Queen Victoria for the ‘ineffable horror’ she felt later that day when a series of telegrams arrived from St Petersburg. Reading them in the sanctuary of Windsor Castle, the light fading over the peaceful English home counties beyond, the crime that had been committed in Russia opened a vista onto a very different landscape, one which heralded a new phase in Europe and marked the birth of a modern form of political terrorism.5
The first ‘very alarming’ telegram to arrive at Windsor indicated that Alexander II had been shot and injured. Just before 6 p.m. came a full account from the British ambassador in Russia, Lord Dufferin, of the ‘dreadful & never to be forgotten event’. The bomb exploded ‘between his legs, shattering and wounding them frightfully, as well as the lower part of the body’, the queen recorded in her journal.6 Soon Dufferin had further particulars. ‘All the clothes were blown off as far as the chest, one leg had almost disappeared and the rest of the body was most frightfully mangled.’7 Nonetheless surgeons thought they might be able to save the tsar by amputating his limbs, and the instruments were being prepared in readiness until they realised he was beyond rescue.8 Queen Victoria felt ‘quite shaken and stunned by this awful news. May God protect all dear ones! Poor, poor Emperor, in spite of his failings, he was a kind & amiable man.’9
The queen knew the tsar personally. The horrific picture of his death evoked in the telegrams contrasted with a very different memory of the man she had met over forty years earlier at the beginning of her reign. In the spring of 1839, when he was the young heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Alexander had paid a visit to Windsor. The twenty-year-old queen had been still unmarried; the twenty-one-year-old tsarevich had come to Europe in search of a consort.
Seen through Victorian eyes, the land from which the grand duke came was a place of violent contradictions and unfathomable dangers. The very name of ‘Russia’ conjured up a tempestuous history of raging Mongol hordes, bloodthirsty emperors, religious wars hatched beneath the gleaming oriental domes of the Russian church and conditions of near slavery or ‘serfdom’ for millions of its inhabitants. But when the heir to the Russian throne had arrived at Windsor in late May 1839, he had defied Queen Victoria’s expectations. Strikingly tall–a Romanov trait–with a commanding presence, Grand Duke Alexander seemed to her ‘a dear, delightful young man’, so frank and merry, ‘with a sweet smile, and such a manly fine figure’.10 The young British queen had appeared to him clever, high-spirited and stylish. They dined, danced and went riding together; there had been a sudden, unexpected intimacy.
‘I really am quite in love with the Grand-duke,’ the queen wrote in her journal on 27 May 1839. He led her into the dining room, St George’s Hall, and afterwards into the red drawing room, ‘I danced 1st a quadrille with the Grand-duke, then followed a Valse… (of course I and also the Grand-duke sitting down during the Valse)…’ When it came to the Mazurka, ‘the Grand Duke asked me to take a turn which I did (never having done it before)… the Grand-Duke is so very strong, that in running around, you must follow quickly, and after that you are whisked around like in a Valse… We had such fun and laughter… I never enjoyed myself more,’ wrote the queen. She was so excited she could not sleep until 5 a.m.11 The light-hearted mood continued at Ascot the next day. The Grand Duke proved to be impetuous and ‘imprudent’. The excitement she felt at the dance that evening when he put his arm round her waist just a little too far and lifted her from the ground prompted her to admit to her diary, ‘I really love this amiable and dear young man’. She turned to the man she trusted most, her devoted Whig prime minister and mentor, the charming Lord Melbourne. It was very fatiguing, she explained, ‘my liking the Grand Duke so much’.12 Queen Victoria asked her Russian guest to stay.
The Grand Duke, in turn, sounded out his father, Tsar Nicholas 1, over the question of marriage to the British queen. His father refused. The heir to the Russian throne could not possibly be a satellite to the British throne.13 Grand Duke Alexander was obliged to leave. The queen felt ‘quite unhappy’ (underlined twice). He kissed her goodbye in such ‘a very warm affectionate manner’ that the queen felt more as though ‘I was taking leave of a relation than of a stranger’. He said he ‘never would forget’ their time together, ‘and I shall never also’ (double underlined), the young queen vowed solemnly.14
Now he was gone. The brutal manner of his death in 1881 undermined the fragile facade of security of European royalty; perhaps it challenged its very existence. ‘It makes one shudder and tremble,’ wrote Queen Victoria’s beloved oldest daughter, Vicky, the Crown Princess of Germany, to her mother on 14 March 1881. ‘One is so horror struck that one really does not know what to say! Poor dear Emperor Alexander!… To be destroyed in so horrible a manner!… The saddest part is that it should be one so well intentioned and kind who was not the tyrant others had been before him, though he had a little of it in him as mostly all the Tsars have. The state of all grades of society there is so bad and too sad! How will they get into a civilised state of liberty and order? When will all that cruel oppression, that sending to Siberia & slowly killing families wholesale–will cease… I am so sorry for Sasha and Minny [the new emperor and empress] to take up a murdered father’s crown is too dreadful… I have not closed my eyes all night I was so shaken with horror!’15
The royal family knew that this was the culmination of six attempts on the life of Alexander II. ‘The poor emperor always expected such a death & for years has felt like a hunted hare,’ Vicky added to her mother. ‘Safe nowhere. What is life at such a price!’16 In recent years the all-powerful tsar had at times felt little more than an animal, ‘a wolf tracked by hunters’, as he put it, with a tangible feeling that his life was measured out in small quantities.17
Alexander had narrowly escaped death in the autumn of 1879 when the People’s Will had tunnelled under a railway track where the imperial train was due to pass and planted a mine. This plan had been foiled by a fortuitous change to the tsar’s travel arrangements. In February 1880 the terrorists had smuggled a staggering 300 pounds of dynamite into the Winter Palace itself, targeting the dining room most frequently used by the tsar. This plot, too, had failed by chance. The tsar’s guest was delayed and dinner was served late, sparing the Romanov family but killing twelve guards. ‘How too dreadful!’ Queen Victoria had written when she heard the news. ‘Such a thing to happen in one’s own house! Hardly credible!… Every day there seems to be some fresh dreadful event! What times we live in!’18
As the terrorists had intended, the gruesome Russian regicide captured headlines across the world. Queen Victoria pored over the newspapers at Windsor and found she could ‘think of nothing else’.19 There were sobering assessments of the prospects for European peace on the accession of a new tsar and the shifting allegiances between Europe’s Great Powers: the mighty empires of Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary, the recently unified Germany and the republic of France. Peace in Europe rested on the balance of power between these countries to ensure that no one state could dominate the others. The Standard on 15 March 1881 saw shadows begin to fall across Europe since ‘the jealousy, not to say quarrel… between Russia on the one hand and Germany and Austria on the other are neither few nor slight’. Russia had recently lost ground in the unstable Balkan region of south-east Europe, and ‘it would not take much’, the Standard forecast with remarkable prescience, for trouble in Serbia in the Balkans ‘to cause a collision at any time’ pitting Russia against Austria and Hungary. This problem was entwined with the long-standing and seemingly irresolvable ‘Eastern Question’ provoked by the steady decline of the Ottoman Empire, which heightened tensions between Europe’s Great Powers as they jostled for territorial gains. The Standard predicted that new European alliances would develop such as ‘a friendly understanding between Russia and France’.20
Apart from their analysis of Europe’s Great Powers, the British press were unanimous in their condemnation of terrorism. Queen Victoria had suffered several attempts on her life, her attackers invariably working alone and often mentally unstable. Alexander II’s assassination, however, was entirely different–the culmination of years of effort by an organised terrorist group specifically targeting royalty to bring down the state. ‘The most monstrous and revolting of regicides’, which undermined ‘the central foundation of authority, order, society and law’, declared the Morning Post, summing up the British perspective.21 But amongst the headlines, the queen was appalled to come across one publication that adopted a very different tone. ‘Triumph! Triumph! One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe whose downfall has long been sworn–the emperor of Russia is no more’, gloated Johann Most, in a German periodical published in London on 19 March called Freiheit, or Freedom. The tsar died ‘as a dog dies’, Most continued, and news of his death had ‘plunged into princely palaces around the world… like a thunderbolt’, reaching those ‘who have a thousand times deserved a like fate… Truly it may happen again here.’22
The queen turned at once to her most faithful correspondent, her daughter Vicky, in Germany. It was a ‘monstrous’ article that ‘openly preaches assassination’ in the name of freedom, the queen wrote, ‘and the language is beyond anything I ever saw’.23 Johann Most, a German anarchist who believed in the destruction of the state, argued for regicides and assassinations as the best means of recruiting converts and igniting revolt. Royalty was a key target of the revolutionaries, a visible symbol of the authority of the state. Where would it all stop? Lord Dufferin soon reported news of a fresh threat. A ‘Nihilist Manifesto’ was posted on the walls of St Petersburg University, ‘triumphing in the assassination and giving the new Russian emperor three months to introduce a new regime’. If Alexander III failed to do so, or if he executed his father’s assassins, ‘they will not give him 24 hours’.24 Could Europe be on the cusp of violent change? The assassin’s creed in barbarous Russia might precipitate revolution or inspire mass uprisings throughout civilised Europe. The queen felt ‘quite bewildered and shaken by this shocking tragedy’ and found the accounts in the newspapers ‘most harrowing’.
A generation had elapsed since the late tsar had once walked the halls of Windsor as a handsome Grand Duke with his future before him and led her onto the dance floor. Within months of that memorable visit the queen had found her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, quite outshone any Russian Grand Duke. When the German prince had arrived at Windsor on 10 October 1839 she had found him ‘beautiful’ and beheld him ‘with some emotion’. Within days, with her heart ‘quite going’, the queen made up her mind. She summoned ‘dearest Albert whom I adore’ to a private meeting on 15 October 1839 and proposed. ‘We embraced each other over and over again… oh! To feel I was, and am, loved by such an Angel.’25
Their union had defined the intervening forty years of her reign. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had had nine children and by the 1880s their family was a British institution that was shaping the future of Europe. Eight of their nine children had married into Europe’s royal houses. Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Vicky, led the way, marrying the heir to the Prussian throne, the first of six of the queen’s children to marry into German royal houses. Her oldest son, the wayward Prince Albert Edward, or ‘Bertie’, had married a Danish princess, Alexandra, bringing connections to the royal houses in Denmark, Greece and Russia. For Prince Albert, these marriages were part of a remarkable vision that he hoped would contribute to the peace and stability of Europe.
The ravages of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in which up to six million people lost their lives, had influenced British policy. To achieve a balance of power, no one continental country should become sufficiently dominant to unleash such destruction across Europe again. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria saw the creation of dynastic marriages between their children and European royalty as a further safeguard. This was not just about extending royal power and prestige, but a means of contributing to ‘British Peace’ or Pax Britannica. Each marriage was a form of soft power: a path to spreading British liberal values across the continent, perhaps even a push back against the destabilising forces of republicanism, revolution and war.26 Albert saw the prospect of a federal Europe in which a series of strong, independent countries, stable under their own constitutional monarchies–ideally modelled as closely as possible on the British constitution–were united by the common goal of achieving European peace and prosperity. As the entwined flags of every country so joined in royal matrimony fluttered over the nuptials they seemed to hold great promise, each royal union a potential statement of allied national interests and ideas, bringing hope to the cheering masses–well before there was any concept of a ‘European Union’.
Victoria and Albert had no fewer than forty-two grandchildren and for years the queen was the recipient of correspondence from grandsons and granddaughters growing up in Europe’s palaces. Letters arrived with unvarying regularity, marking birthdays and anniversaries from the Neues Palais in Potsdam, the Palais Edinburg in Coburg, Fredensborg Palace near Copenhagen, Eastwell Park, Cumberland Lodge, Sandringham, Marlborough House, Birkhall and others. From the first scrawls carefully supervised on pencil-drawn lines thanking ‘Grandmama queen’ for presents or telling her about pets, to letters that conveyed their growing experience of their courts or travels, she had watched the progress of the next generation flourish into a cousinhood so large that it formed a unique network or club occupying a singular place at the top of European society. Her union with her beloved Albert had even greater significance as royal connections could be extended and secured still further. The queen had a markedly European outlook and with her trusty Almanac de Gotha, a Who’s Who of European royalty, at her side, she took an informed interest in the prospective marriages of her grandchildren.
Queen Victoria’s grandchildren gained automatic entry into what amounted to the world’s most exclusive dating agency, where one good-looking princess might find herself sought after by the heirs to several thrones. The queen knew that a constellation of judgements had to be called upon when weighing up any hopeful bride or groom. It was not just a question of their country’s prospects and the stability of their throne, but also their religion, moral character, education and looks as well as their ability–perhaps not voiced–to produce strong, healthy heirs. She felt uniquely placed to orchestrate the selection process and help her grandchildren navigate the mysteries of the royal marriage market where young dreams of romance and power often needed realistic guidance.
The birth of a modern form of terrorism with the appalling Russian regicide did not dampen her enthusiasm for matchmaking. As the weeks passed and the queen had a chance to appraise the situation, she saw the Russian murder as a confirmation of her long-held views on the ‘horror of Russia & Russians!’ rather than an assault on all royal power.27 The assassin’s creed in barbarous Russia reflected harsh extremes of tsarist rule that had persisted despite Alexander II’s reforms. Lord Dufferin appeared to confirm this view when he told Queen Victoria that the late tsar’s reforms were good but had been introduced ‘so precipitously as to derange the social fabric’, creating conditions in which ‘the nihilistic conspiracy was born and bred’.28
The queen saw no reason to change her views on other European royal alliances and her grandchildren were expected to play their part in this royal stage production and live up to Prince Albert’s vision. This book explores how seven of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren were elevated to the thrones of Europe at a critical time in Europe’s history and the influence of her matchmaking on the remarkable rise of the royal dynasty.
This is not a complete list of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, but highlights her seven crowned grandchildren (in bold), along with siblings who played a key role in their story.
Victoria, Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, known as ‘Vicky’
Children of Vicky and her husband Frederick III, German Emperor (r. March–June 1888)
Wilhelm II, who became Emperor of Germany (r. 1888–1918)
Victoria of Prussia, known as ‘Moretta’
Sophie, who became Queen of Greece (r. 1913–17; 1920–22)
Edward, Queen Victoria’s oldest son, known as ‘Bertie’
Children of Bertie and his Danish wife, Princess Alexandra
Prince Albert Victor, known as ‘Eddy’
Prince George, who became George V (r. 1910–36)
Princess Maud, who became Queen of Norway (r. 1905–38)
Alice, Queen Victoria’s second daughter
Children of Alice and her husband, Grand Duke Louis of Hesse
Victoria of Hesse (later Battenberg)
Elisabeth of Hesse or ‘Ella’, who became Grand Duchess Elisabeth
Alix, or ‘Alicky’, who became Empress of Russia (r. 1894–1917)
Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son
Children of Alfred and his Russian wife, Marie of Edinburgh
Marie or ‘Missy’, who became Queen of Romania (r. 1914–27)
Victoria Melita or ‘Ducky’
Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter
Children of Beatrice and Prince Henry of Battenberg
Victoria Eugenie or ‘Ena’, who became Queen of Spain (r. 1906–31)
NOTE ON NAMES AND DATES
Since many of Victoria and Albert’s descendants are themselves called ‘Victoria’ and ‘Albert’, it is perhaps not surprising that the royal family made use of nicknames, and I have adopted these family names where it helps to distinguish younger generations of ‘Victorias’ and ‘Alberts’. For example, Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Victoria, later the Empress of Germany, was widely known as ‘Vicky’. In turn, Vicky’s second daughter, Victoria, or ‘young Vicky’, was nicknamed ‘Moretta’ by her family and I have named her accordingly. Prince Albert’s oldest son, Albert Edward, became best known by the name of ‘Bertie’; in turn, Bertie’s oldest son, Albert Victor, was nicknamed ‘Eddy’. I have also adopted the anglicised spellings of names, such as Margaret instead of ‘Margarethe’ and Victoria instead of ‘Viktoria’, with the exception of names where the foreign spellings are very familiar such as Kaiser Wilhelm.
- Wonderfully compelling and packed with new material - a gripping story beautifully told.—Jane Ridley
- In this enjoyable story for fans of royal machinations, Cadbury ably shows not just the successes, but also the damage inflicted by Victoria's single-mindedness. An instructive European history that effectively shows 'the influence of [Victoria's] matchmaking on the remarkable rise of the royal dynasty'.—Kirkus Reviews
- [An] absorbing book... The fall of the Romanovs occupies the superb last pages of Cadbury's book... Dynastic mergers, we may deduce from Deborah Cadbury's account, offer no defence against the whims of history. This catastrophe-laced slice of royal history offers a ripping read.—Miranda Seymour, The Observer
- Engrossing...Cadbury engagingly presents [Queen Victoria] as a mesmerising Mrs Bennet, summoning her children and then her grandchildren to Balmoral. ..The stories of [Queen Victoria's] descendants are mesmerising and often stranger than fiction...From the pen of a writer of skill and style, this surprising narrative leaves you wanting more.—Paula Byrne, The Times
- On Sale
- Apr 16, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages